|Themes > Science > Life Sciences > Physical Anthropology > Prehistoric Times|
[Excerpted from Philip Van Ness Myers, Ancient History, Revised Edition (Boston: Ginn and Company, 1904), pp. 1-12]
The Antiquity of Man.--We do not know when man first appeared upon the earth. We only know that in ages long past, when both the climate and the outline of the continents were very different from what they are at present, primitive man roamed over them with animals now extinct; and that, about 5000 B.C., when the historic curtain first rises, in some favored regions, as in the valleys of the Nile and the Euphrates, there were nations and civilizations already venerable with age, and possessing arts, governments, and institutions that bear evidence of slow growth through very long periods of time. [The Book of Genesis, which the Christian Church holds to be a divinely inspired record, fixes no definite date for the beginning of human life on the earth.]
The Prehistoric and the Historic Age.--The uncounted millenniums which lie back of the time when man began to keep written records of what he thought and did and of what befell him, are called the Prehistoric Age.
The comparatively few centuries of human life which are made known to us through written records comprise the Historic Age. In the valleys of the Nile and the Euphrates there have been discovered written records which were made at least four or five thousand years before Christ; so we say that the historic period began in those lands six or seven thousand years ago. On the island of Crete numerous inscriptions have recently been found that apparently were written as early as the fourth millennium B.C. These, however, have not yet been deciphered. Some written records used by Chinese historians seem to go back to the third millennium before our era. In other regions the historic period still begins for us at a much later date. Thus the truly historic age did not open in Greece and Italy until about 800 or 700 B.C., and for the countries of Northern Europe, speaking broadly, not until about the beginning of our era.
How we learn about Prehistoric Man.--A knowledge of what prehistoric man was and what he did is indispensable to the historical student; for the dim prehistoric ages of human life form the childhood of the race,--and the man cannot be understood without at least some knowledge of the child.
But how, in the absence of written records, are we to find out anything about prehistoric man? In many ways we are able to learn much about him. Thus, for instance, we may regard existing savage and semi-savage races as representing the prehistoric state of the advanced races. As it has been put, what they now are we once were. So by acquainting ourselves with the life and customs of these laggard races we acquaint ourselves with our own prehistoric past and that of all other civilized peoples.
Again, the men who lived before the dawn of history left behind them many things which witness as to what manner of men they were. In ancient gravel beds along the streams where they fished or hunted, in the caves which afforded them shelter in the refuse heaps (kitchen middens) on the sites of their villages or camping places, or in the graves where they laid away their dead, we find great quantities of tools and weapons and other articles shaped by their hands. From these things we learn what skill these early men had acquired as tool makers and to what degree of culture they had attained. [Besides these material things which can be seen and handled, there are many immaterial things, as, for instance, language, which light up for us the dim ages before history.]
Divisions of Prehistoric Times.--The long period of prehistoric times is divided into different ages which are named from the material which man used in the manufacture of his weapons and tools. The earliest epoch is known as the Paleolithic or Old Stone Age; the following one as the Neolithic or New Stone Age; and the later period as the Age of Metals.
The division lines between these ages are not sharply drawn. In most countries the epochs run into and overlap one another, just as in modern times the Age of Steam runs into and overlaps the Age of Electricity.
The Paleolithic or Old Stone Age.--In the Old Stone Age man's implements were usually made of stone, and particularly of easily chipped flints, though sometimes bones, horns, tusks, and other material were used in their manufacture. These rude tools and weapons of Paleolithic man, found in gravel beds and in caves, are the very oldest things in existence shaped by human hands.
The man of the Old Stone Age saw t he retreating glaciers of the last great ice age, of which geology tells us. Among the animals which lived with him on the continent of Europe--we know most of Paleolithic man there--were the mammoth, the cave bear, the elk, the rhinoceros, the wild horse, and the reindeer; species which are no longer found in the regions where primitive man hunted- them. As the climate gradually grew warmer they either became extinct or retreated up the mountains or migrated towards the north.
What we know of Paleolithic man may be summed up as follows: he was a hunter and fisher; his habitation was a cave or a rock shelter; his implements were in the main roughly shaped flints; he had no domestic animals save possibly the dog and the reindeer; he was practically ignorant of the art of making pottery; he had no belief in a future life, at least we have no evidence that he buried his dead after the manner of those folk who have come to hold such a belief.
The length of the Old Stone Age no one knows; we do not attempt to reckon its duration by centuries or millenniums even, but only by geologic epochs. But we do know--and this is something of vastly greater moment than a knowledge of the duration of the age--that the long slow epochs did not pass away without some progress having been made by primeval man, which assures us that though so lowly a creature he was a creature endowed with capacity for growth and improvement.
Before the end of the age man had learned the use of fire, as we know from the traces of fire found in the caves which were his abode, and had invented the bow and arrow, as is evidenced by arrowheads of flint and of bone which have been discovered. This important invention gave man what was to be one of his chief weapons in the chase and in war down to and even after the invention of firearms late in the historic age.
But most prophetic of the great future before this savage or semi-savage cave man is the sense of form and beauty which he possessed; for, strange as it may seem, the man of this epoch was in his way an artist. Hundreds of specimens of drawings or carvings, chiefly of animals, on bone-or on ivory have been discovered.
The Neolithic or New Stone Age.--The Old Stone Age was followed by the New. Chipped or hammered stone implements still continued to be used, but what characterizes this period was the use of ground or polished implements. The North American Indians were in this stage of culture at the time of the discovery of the New World. The old Egyptians and Babylonians seem to have been just emerging from it when they first appear in the dawn of the historic day.
Neolithic man in Europe was in many respects much advanced over Paleolithic man. He had learned to cultivate the soil; he had learned to make pottery, to spin, and to weave; he had domesticated various wild animals; he built houses and constructed great earthen forts; and he buried his dead in such a manner--with " accompanying gifts "--as to show that he had come to believe in a future life.
The Age of Metals.--Finally the long ages of stone passed into the Age of Metals. This age falls into three subdivisions, --the Age of Copper, the Age of Bronze, and the Age of Iron. Some peoples, like the [sub-Saharan] African[s] ..., passed directly from the use of stone to the use of iron; but in most of the countries of the Orient and of Europe the three metals came into use one after the other and in the order named.
Speaking broadly, we may say that the Age of Metals embraces the five millenniums preceding the opening of our era. This means that for some peoples, as for instance the Egyptians and the Babylonians, these epochs or stages of culture fall within their historic period, while for others, as for instance the Greeks and the Romans, they begin in their prehistoric and overlap their historic age.
[The use of copper seems to have begun among the peoples of the Orient before 5000 B.C. It is a soft metal, and tools and weapons made of it were not so greatly superior to the stone ones then in else as to put them out of service. But either by accident or through experiment it was discovered that by mixing about nine parts of copper with one part of the a new metal, called bronze, much harder than either tin or copper, could be made. So greatly superior were bronze to stone implements that their introduction caused the use of stone for tools and weapons to be discontinued, and consequently the Age of Bronze constitutes a well-defined and important epoch in the history of culture. Bronze seems to have been used by the first kings of Egypt, about 4500 B.C. From the East the metal was carried into Europe. Iron was already in use among the Oriental peoples about 1500 B.C., and was gradually introduced among the European tribes.]
The history of metals has been declared to be the history of civilization. Indeed, it would be almost impossible to overestimate their importance to man. Man could do very little with stone implements compared with what he could do with metal implements. It was a great labor for primitive man, even with the aid of fire, to fell a tree with a stone axe and to hollow out the trunk for a boat. He was hampered in all his tasks by the rudeness of his tools. It was only as the bearer of metal implements and weapons that he began really to subdue the earth and to get dominion over nature. All the higher cultures of the ancient world with which history begins were based on the knowledge and use of metals.
The Origin of the Use of Fire.--In this and following paragraphs we shall dwell briefly upon some of the special discoveries and achievements, several of which have already been mentioned, marking important steps in man's progress during the prehistoric ages. Prominent among these was the discovery of fire.
The origin of the use of fire is hidden in the obscurity of prehistoric times. That fire was known to Paleolithic man we learn, as already noted, from the traces of it discovered in the caves and rock shelters which were his abode. No people has ever been found so low in the scale of culture as to be without it.
As to the way in which early man came into possession of fire we have no knowledge. Possibly he kindled his first fire from a glowing lava stream or from some burning tree trunk set aflame by the lightning. However this may be, he had in the earliest times learned to produce the vital spark by means of friction. The fire borer, according to Tylor, is among the oldest of human inventions.
Only gradually did primeval man learn the various properties of fire and discover the different uses to which it might be put, just as historic man has learned only gradually the possible uses of electricity. By some happy accident or discovery he learned that it would harden clay, and he became a potter; that it would smelt ores, and he became a worker in metals; and that it would aid him in a hundred other ways. "Fire," says Joly, " presided at the birth of nearly every art, or quickened its progress." The place it holds in the development of the family, of religion, and of the industrial arts is revealed by these three significant words --" the hearth, the altar, the forge." No other agent has contributed more to the progress of civilization. Indeed, it is difficult to conceive how without fire primitive man could ever have emerged from the Age of Stone.
The Domestication of Animals.--"When we visit a farm at the present day and observe the friendly nature of the life which goes on there,--the horse proudly and obediently bending his neck to his yoke; the cow offering her streaming udder to the milkmaid; the woolly flock going forth to the field, accompanied by their trusty protector, the dog, who comes fawning to his master,--this familiar intercourse between man and beast seems so natural that it is scarcely conceivable that things may once have been different. And yet in the picture we see only the final result of thousands and thousands of years of the work of civilization, the enormous importance of which simply escapes our notice because it is by everyday wonders that our amazement is least excited." [Schrader, Prehistoric Antiquities of the Aryan Peoples (London, 1890), p. 259]
The most of this work of inducing the animals of the fields and the woods to become as it were members or dependents of the human family, to enter into a league of friendship with man and to become his helpers, was done by prehistoric man. When man appears in history, he appears surrounded by almost all the domestic animals known to us to-day. The horse was already his willing servant; the dog was his faithful companion; the sheep, the cow, and the goat shared his shelter with him.
The domestication of animals had such a profound effect upon human life and occupation that it marks the opening of a new epoch in history. The hunter became a shepherd, and the hunting stage in culture gave place to the pastoral. [It is of Interest to know that most of the wild stocks whence have come our domestic animals are of Old World origin. It is thought by some that one reason why the tribes of the New World at the time of its discovery were so far behind the peoples of the Old was that there were fewer tamable animals here.]
The Domestication of Plants.--Long before the dawn of history those peoples of the Old World who were to play great parts in early historic times had advanced from the pastoral to the agricultural stage of culture. Just as the step from the hunting to the pastoral stage had been taken with the aid of a few of the most social species of animals, so had this second upward step from the pastoral to the agricultural stage been taken by means of the domestication of a few of the innumerable species of the seed grasses and plants growing wild in field and wood.
Wheat and barley, two of the most important of the cereals. were probably first domesticated on the plains of Babylonia and from there carried over Asia and Europe. These grains, together with oats and rice, have been, in the words of Tylor, "the mainstay of human life and the great moving power of civilization." They constituted the basis of the earliest great states and civilizations of Asia and Europe.
The domestication of plants and the art of tilling the soil effected a great revolution in prehistoric society. The wandering life of the hunter and the herder now gave way to a settled mode of existence. Cities were built, and within them began to be amassed those treasures, material and immaterial, which constitute the precious heirloom of humanity. This attachment to the soil of the hitherto roving clans and tribes meant also the beginning of political life. The cities were united into states and great kingdoms were formed, and the political history of man began, as in the valleys of the Nile and the Euphrates.
Early man seems to have realized how much he owed to the art of husbandry, for in the mythologies of many peoples some god or goddess is represented as having taught men how to till the soil and to plant the seed. It seemed to man that for so great a boon he must be beholden to the beneficence of the gods. [So thorough was prehistoric man's search for whatever in the plant world could be cultivated for food that historic man has not been able during the last 2000 years from the tens of thousands of wild plants to discover any species comparable in value to any one of the staple food-plants selected and domesticated by primeval man (De Candolle, Origin of Cultivated Plants, p. 451) . It is interesting further to note that while early man exploited the organic kingdoms, that is to say the animal and vegetable realms, he made few and slight requisitions upon the forces of the inorganic world. It was reserved for the men of the later historic age to domesticate, so to speak, the powerful agents steam and electricity and by their utilization to effect revolutions in modem society like those effected in prehistoric times by the domestication of animals and plants.]
The Formation of Language.--Another great task and achievement of primitive man was the making of language. The earliest speech used by historic man, as Tylor observes, " teaches the interesting lesson that the main work of language-making was done in the ages before history."
The vastness of this work is indicated by the rich and intricate nature of the languages with which history begins, for language making, particularly in its earliest stages, is a very slow process. Periods of time like geologic epochs must have been required for the formation out of the scanty speech of the first men, by the slow process of word-making, of the rich and copious languages already upon the lips of the great peoples of antiquity, the Hamitic Egyptians, the Semitic Babylonians, the Aryans of India and Persia, and their kinsmen, the Greeks and Romans, when they first appear in the morning light of history
We need not dwell upon the inestimable value to man of the acquisition of language. Without it all his other acquisitions and discoveries would have remained comparatively fruitless, all his efforts to lift himself to higher levels of culture have been unavailing. Without it, so far as we can see, he must have remained forever in an unprogressive and savage or semi-savage state.
The Invention of Writing.--Still another achievement of prehistoric man, and after the making of language perhaps his greatest, certainly the most fruitful, was the invention of writing.
The first form of writing used by primitive man was picture writing, such as was and is still used by some of the Indian tribes of the New World. In this system of writing the characters are rude pictures of material objects, as for instance a picture of an eye to indicate the organ of sight; or they are symbols of ideas, as for illustration a picture consisting of wavy lines beneath an arc representing the sky to indicate rain. This way of representing ideas, which seems natural to man, is known as ideographic writings and the signs are called ideograms.
A great step in advance is taken when the picture writer uses his pictures or symbols to represent not actual objects or ideas, but sounds of the human voice, that is, words. This step was taken in prehistoric times by different peoples independently. It seems to have been taken by means of the rebus, a mode of writing which children love to employ. What makes rebus writing possible is the existence in every language of words having the same sound but different meanings. Thus in English the pronoun I is sounded like the word eye, and the word reign, to rule, like the word rain. Now the picture writer, wishing to express the idea I reign, could do so by the use of the two pictures or ideograms given above, in this way. When so used, the ideogram becomes a phonogram, and the writing is phonetic or sound writing.
In this manner the great chasm between picture writing and sound writing is bridged, and one of the most difficult steps taken in the development of a practical system of representing thought.
In the first stage of sound writing, each picture or symbol stands for a whole word. In such a system as this there must of course be as many characters or signs as there are words in the language represented. In working out their system of writing the Chinese stuck fast at this point .
Two additional steps beyond this stage are required in order to perfect the system. The first of these is taken when the characters are used to represent syllables instead of words. This reduces at once the number of signs needed from many thousands to a few hundreds, since the words of any given language are formed by the combination of a comparatively small number of syllables. With between four and five hundred symbols the ancient Babylonians and Assyrians, who used this form of writing, were able to represent all the words of their respective languages. Characters or symbols used to represent syllables are called syllabic phonograms, and a collection of such signs is called a syllabary.
While a collection of syllabic signs is a great improvement over a collection of word signs, still it is a clumsy instrument for expressing ideas, and the system requires still further simplification. This is done and the final step in developing a convenient System of writing is taken when the symbols are used to represent not syllables but elementary sounds of the human voice. Then the symbols become true letters, a complete collection of which is called an alphabet. and the mode of writing alphabetic.
When and where the final step was taken we do not know. But as early as the ninth century B.C. we find several Semitic peoples in possession of an alphabet. [Our earliest inscriptions in the North Semitic alphabet date from the ninth century B.C.; but they show unmistakably that this script had then been in use for a considerable time. We probably possess South Arabian inscriptions written already in the fourteenth century B.C. While some scholars regard the Southern alphabet as a modification of the Northern, others consider both as independent adaptations of an earlier alphabetic script and are inclined to look to some of the Ęgeo-Cretan systems of writing for a clew to the origin of the alphabet.] Through the agency of Phoenician and other traders this so-called Semitic alphabet was spread east and west, and became the parent of most of the existing alphabets of the world.
With the invention of phonetic writing and the practice of keeping records, with names of actors and dates of events, the truly historic age for man begins.
The Great Bequest.--We of this twentieth century esteem ourselves fortunate in being the heirs of a noble heritage,--the inheritors of the precious accumulations of all the past centuries of history. We are not used to thinking of the men of the first generation of historic times as also the heirs of a great legacy. But even the scanty review we have made of what was discovered, invented, and thought out by man during the unmeasured epochs before history began cannot fail to have impressed us with the fact that a vast estate was transmitted by prehistoric to historic man.
If our hasty glance at those far-away times has done nothing more than this, then we shall never again regard history quite as may have been our wont. We shall see everything in a new light. We shall see the story of man to be more wonderful than we once thought, the path which he has followed to be longer and more toilsome than we ever imagined.
But our interest in the traveler will have been deepened through our knowing more of his origin, of his early hard and narrow life, and of his first painful steps in the path of civilization. We shall follow with deeper interest and sympathy this wonderful being, child of earth and child of heaven, this heir of all the ages, as he journeys on and upward with his face toward the light.